Book review: Sell Us The Rope, by Stephen May

Reimagining Joseph Stalin’s visit to London in 1907, Stephen May’s new novel is richly varied and very enjoyable, writes Allan Massie

Stephen May PIC: Jonathan Ring
Stephen May PIC: Jonathan Ring

In an end note to this historical novel, Stephen May quotes the philosopher and occasional novelist George Santayana who declared that “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there”. This offers the novelist leeway. May’s book comes with a warm recommendation from Hilary Mantel who, in the wake of her Cromwell series, has now assumed the role once played by Graham Greene as always ready to offer high praise to aspiring members of her trade. She calls May “the spry, sardonic voice of the new historical fiction” – a just and well deserved compliment.

The chief character is Jospeh Stalin, long before he became Stalin and was known as Koba, a Bolshevik revolutionary, poet in his native Georgian language, and bank-robber, also a spy and informer for the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret service. There were indeed suspicions that he played this double role, though I think it has never been proved. No matter: it serves its turn in the novel.

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The setting is London, the occasion the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party. Banned in Norway and Denmark, such was the confidence of Britain in the high noon of Empire that it was permitted in London. After all, why not? Karl Marx had lived most of his adult life in London, writing “Das Kapital” and preaching Revolution. All the later famous figures are present at the Congress – Lenin, Trotsky, both under noms-de-guerre, Litvinov and Rosa Luexemberg. Rather surprisingly Koba and the other Bolsheviks are disgusted by the filth and squalor of London’s East End. This seems improbable when one thinks of Moscow then and Russian villages and provincial towns as described by Chekhov and Gorky.

Sell Us The Rope, by Stephen May

Koba is the central figure: morose, suspicious, resentful, simmering with suppressed anger, but also intelligent and a poet, capable of sympathy with some. Despite thinking tenderly of his wife and son back in Georgia, he has an affair with a young Finnish delegate, an attractive girl who seems to be a fictional character though she may have a real-life original. Koba also forms a friendship with his landlord’s son, an agreeable and resourceful boy called Arthur Bacon. He is a real life figure who gave his impressions of Stalin to a newspaper in 1950 – by which time he was voting Conservative. Koba’s tenderness for him, very well evoked, derives in part anyway from the resemblance between Arthur’s alcoholic and violent father and his own brutal father back in Tbilisi. May indeed has it that Koba has murdered his father, though in fact the old brute died, probably as a result of his alcoholism, two years after this Congress. Well, this is acceptable authorial licence.

May has an admirably light touch. He writes with a pleasing economy. Most scenes are short, rarely prolonged before what is needed. He writes with sympathy and understanding of his characters. While not ignoring the ruthlessness and criminality of his Bolsheviks, he still recognizes elements of idealism. He makes clear the brutality of the political and economic system against which they are fighting and there is also comedy in their exploration of the British metropolis, comedy too in Arthur’s father’s contempt for their vision of a world free from capitalism. He is clear that it just won’t work – as of course it didn’t when Lenin and Stalin sought to create the new Soviet man. There is comedy here too – a reminder that the novel, even, or perhaps especially, when political, is essentially a comic art form, well laced with irony. A scene in which Koba reports to his Okhrana minders not only rings true but is very funny.

In short, this is a richly varied and very enjoyable novel. A lesser writer would have made it much longer. It is apparently May’s sixth novel, but he is new to me. If his previous ones are even half as good they are surely worth reading. As it is, I look forward to his next one with some eagerness. The title comes from the Bolshevik saying – Lenin’s, I think: ”When it’s time to hang the Capitalists, they will sell us the rope”.

Sell Us The Rope, by Stephen May, Sandstone, 231pp, £8.99

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